New Series: the Shmoneh Esrei

So I’ve got this thing about language and the truth–I like them to correspond. One of the most frustrating experiences of my life was when I was in second grade and they made us take this standardized test. One of the questions had three pictures–a dog, a boy and a potato–and asked you which one had eyes but couldn’t see. Of course, you probably know the answer they wanted me to give, but I had not yet been initiated into the more bizarre and illogical quirks of the English language, so I spent several long and frustrating minutes wrestling with the problem before declaring, under protest, that the dog must be blind. I’m pretty sure that when I eventually found out that potatoes have “eyes” it just made me more angry, not less.

Which is all to say that I get very emotionally invested in words and how they’re used. That’s why I think that one of the best ways to understand what we believe about God is to pay close attention to what we say about hir. Of all the Jewish texts, I think the siddur is really the most fascinating to study because of the way it assembles bits and pieces of the tradition from all over the place into a collection of things we say about God collectively, on a regular basis, over and over and over again.

I want to focus on the Shmoneh Esrei (so named because it had eighteen blessings before they added a nineteenth) because it exemplifies some basic themes you find throughout the siddur. First, what it has to say about God is very functional. The Amidah isn’t concerned with speculating about what kind of a thing God is, so much as focusing on the things God does. This is either very pragmatic, or deeply insightful, or both if you like. Reading what the Shmoneh Esrei has to say about God makes me think of the theology of the Rambam (Moses Maimonides), who claimed that we can’t really say or know anything about God because our concepts are all formulated to handle the finite things we encounter in this world and aren’t built to handle the infinite and transcendent. The only things we can really know about God are A.) What God is not and B.) What God does.

I thought it would be interesting then to go through the Shmoneh Esrei blessing by blessing and think about what each one is saying about God and our relationship to hir. This isn’t necessarily to say that you have to believe everything (or anything) the Amidah has to say about God in order to find meaning in reciting it each day. But if you, like me, happen to think of God as a transcendent and incomprehensible reality that nevertheless has an effect on our lives that can only be described in the language of relationship and concern, then this exercize might be an interesting model for thinking about what that means for you.

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